This Couple Spent Six Months Eating Garbage

Premiering on World Food Day, the new documentary Just Eat It highlights American food waste from soup to nuts.

Just Eat It director and film subject Grant Baldwin is shocked to find a swimming pool sized dumpster filled with discarded hummus.

A fair warning: Watching the new documentary Just Eat It may result in a rush to the kitchen, where you will feel compelled to make a big pot of soup with whatever you have on hand. You may also end up blending all your rotting fruit into a smoothie and throwing a huge barbecue to empty all the aging condiments from your fridge door (yes, we’re all guilty of the sin of multiple mustards). Just Eat It is the story of husband and wife Grant Baldwin (director) and Jen Rustemeyer (producer) as they set off on a six-month journey to consume only “wasted” food—discarded, “ugly,” or simply poorly labeled items that are otherwise fully edible. The result is a surprising and eye-opening story about the state of food waste in North America, where 40 percent of the food produced is never consumed (a $165 billion loss), despite our skyrocketing rates of hunger. It’s a stunning thing to see—agricultural fields full of non-marketable produce or dumpsters full of fresh food—when one in five households with children in the U.S. is food insecure.

I sat down with Baldwin and Rustemeyer on the eve of both the film’s U.S. premiere and World Food Day to discuss how the overwhelming issue of food waste might be alleviated on the home front and why, when we produce so much food—more than enough to feed every person in North America, twice over—hunger is still such an epidemic.

What compelled you to make this film?

Rustemeyer: You know these statistics—billions of dollars of food gets wasted—but it’s really hard to visualize that. So that’s why we decided to go the film route, because then people can see the food waste with their own eyes and it hits home.

Baldwin: Yeah, a lot of environmental films hit you with messages over the head and you just feel deflated at the end. I’ve never enjoyed going to movies like that. So I wanted to do something a little bit more enjoyable and I think us being guinea pigs makes people want to watch it.

It gives you a real sense of food waste, on the personal level.

Baldwin: That was actually a big realization for us when we went into it. Making this film we thought we were going to be exposing industry food waste, but it really turned into—after more and more research and more filming—how much the individual plays a part and how much the average household is wasting. A quarter of what we buy we don’t eat. Individuals are responsible for one half of all the food waste created—whether they’re throwing away uneaten groceries or cooked food, or not finishing their food at home or out at restaurants.

Let’s take a step back. Can you define “waste” for me?

Rustemeyer: Waste is just food that doesn’t get eaten. Waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted. It’s often good food and it can be eaten. But as soon as you throw it out, it’s “waste.”

But really, that’s subjective. How do we get to the figure of 40 percent of food produced is wasted? Because one person’s food might be another person’s waste, or vice versa.

Rustemeyer: Absolutely. All our statistics on food waste come from Dana Gunders (who also appears in our film) of the National Resources Defense Council. What they do is look at the calories produced and grown in the US, then they look at how much food gets thrown out—so they’re estimating calorie for calorie.

Baldwin: And that differential is the waste.

A grocery shopper picks through fruit in the produce section. Most fruits and vegetables are culled due to aesthetic issues rather than safety concerns.

So what are the major sources that contribute to waste?

Baldwin: One of the biggest [sources] is date labeling. Date labels are a relatively new phenomenon—they’ve only been around for about 40 years. They’re basically for stock rotation and an indication of peak freshness. They have nothing to do with safety. And we actually found that in Canada, items with a shelf life of over 90 days don’t even require a date label at all. We also found out that the expiry date is a myth. They really only [need to] exist on a handful of items. In the grocery store, the only thing with an actual expiry date is infant formula. Everyone says “expiry” but what they are really talking about is peak freshness. And it’s an arbitrary and very conservative date. Grocery stores will start discarding food that’s coming even in the vicinity of that date. We found stores that were pulling stuff off the shelves three days before the arbitrary date. A lot of the food we found for our film was discarded even before it had reached the consumer.

Rustemeyer: And it’s restaurants, too. When you order a sandwich at a restaurant, you never get the end piece of the loaf of bread. So that’s two pieces on every loaf of bread that are going to waste.

Baldwin: Schools are also a really big source of waste. If you think about high schools or universities, kids will load up their trays with lunch, but they hardly ever finish what they’re taking. So some schools are removing the trays, so that kids can only carry two items. If they want more, they are more likely to walk back up and get another thing instead of having too much already.

And what about the role of agriculture?

Baldwin: Well, that’s cosmetics. So for example, the peach grower we met in California, he had 20 to 70 percent waste because of cosmetic reasons, whether there would be a blemish or whether the peach was too small or too large or the wrong color. He’ll sell more imperfect stuff when they’ve had a bad year, so it does vary. But when you walk in a grocery store you see bananas and oranges and everything is uniform, pretty much. But that’s not the way nature grows. If you’ve ever had your own veggie garden and you pull a carrot out of the ground, it’s always kind of an odd shape. You never see those in the store…And the standards are set by the buyers.

So how do you think we can connect this issue of waste with reducing hunger? We grew up with this idea of “finish what’s on your plate, there are starving children in Africa”—of course, now we know that food insecurity is nearly everywhere, including in our own backyards. But how do we actually connect these two issues of waste and hunger?

Baldwin: Well, there’s an actual connection. Your mom was right when she nagged you to finish your food, because a lot of commodities and crops are traded on the global market—for example, wheat and other grains. So if we’re throwing away 40 percent of the bread, for example, or even 20 percent of the bread, that drives the price of wheat up. This [global market] is where people in Africa have to buy from as well, so literally, when we’re throwing bread out here, we’re taking food off the table over there.

Rustemeyer: Locally, too. We have enough calories in North America to feed every single person and it’s really a distribution issue. We went to the growers in California, who produce so much food their local food banks are overwhelmed. But if you go to one of the other states—who’s going to drive peaches across the country for free?

Just Eat It Director and film subject Grant Baldwin checks out a dumpster of excess, but edible, food.

Do you have a sense of how other, less affluent countries are dealing with food waste?

Baldwin: Everybody has food waste around the world but only developed countries are choosing to throw away food. Developing nations don’t have as much refrigeration and transport for food as we do. They don’t have a choice because it’s going bad; they have a lack of infrastructure. So they have almost as much food waste, but they’re not choosing to throw it out. They value their food more than us. Here, we’re so sophisticated with our food systems that we can actually decide to throw things out.

So what are the steps individuals can take to alleviate food waste?

Baldwin: Well, if you want to be proactive right away, the “Eat Me First” bin is my favorite. That’s a bin in your fridge where you put things that need to be included in the next meal. That allowed me to feel more creative in the kitchen, at least. I wasn’t much of a cook before this. And look at what they’re pulling off the shelves at the supermarket. You'd be surprised—buy some of that, it’s still good. And use your senses instead of the date label.

In terms of the bigger picture, we’ve been talking about organic for 15 years, and now we’re talking about genetically modified food. We’re so paranoid about how our food is brought to us that we’re forgetting the fact that we’re not eating it. So just valuing everything. So when you’re out at a restaurant and maybe you’re on a no carb diet or wheat-free diet, let them know that before you order so it doesn’t get plated and wasted.

And what is the bigger shift needed on an industry level?

Baldwin: There’s a market solution for everything. If you look at what they’re doing in France, a grocery chain started a slick campaign marketing ugly, cosmetically imperfect food, and it got people to buy weird looking carrots or funny looking oranges. Marketing imperfect food would make farming much more efficient. And then also having separate stores, or parts of stores, where they can sell food that is close-dated or past-date instead of tossing.

Rustemeyer: Right, the former president of Trader Joe’s is opening a store selling close-dated food.

Are you still dumpster diving?

Baldwin: No, not unless we’re doing a presentation and we want to show people what kind of things can be found. But no, we don’t look at dumpster diving as a solution in any way. And we don’t like the term “freegan” because it sounds like people are trying to sponge off the system. Someone is paying for that food, and we’re paying for that food when it gets thrown out.